Teenage pregnancy and motherhood, associated with higher morbidity and mortality for both the mother and child, remains a major health and social concern in Uganda. Less well documented is the stigma it carries in this East African country—but girls like Harriet* can attest to this seemingly invisible problem.
“My father said I brought a curse on the family and said I should leave his home immediately,” said Harriet, recounting her experience upon her father learning she was pregnant at 16. She was in primary seven in a local school when she conceived—after her first sexual encounter.
In communities marked by biting poverty, where sex education is taboo, adolescents face limited access to sexual and reproductive health information and services—contributing to a high number of unintended teenage pregnancies and early motherhood. 1 out of every 4 girls aged 15-19 is either pregnant or has already had a baby, according to the Uganda Health Demographic Survey (HDS).
The stigma associated with teenage pregnancy exacerbates an already precarious situation for the girls, stemming mainly from cultural, and, to some extent, religious beliefs. Abortion is taboo and stigmatized, while girls like Harriet who carry their pregnancies through suffer the same fate—rejection. “Insults were hurled at me by almost everybody in the community. One old woman spat on the ground saying I was a disgrace,” said Harriet.
The situation is no better in schools. Both teachers and students stigmatize teenage mothers, demeaning the girls by calling them “class mother” or “grandmother”—leaving the girls feeling rejected and stigmatized both at home and in school.
Many choose to leave school, but they are then typically married off—where they face a higher risk of domestic violence. Uganda’s HDS shows 56% of married women have experienced physical violence. For women in the lowest economic status—where the majority of child brides fall—the percentage is even higher, 63%. In Uganda, the minimum legal age for a woman to get married is 18 years. They suffer sexual and emotional abuse, too. Child brides are particularly vulnerable because of the unequal power relationships with their older husbands.
At my charity, Education & Development Opportunity – Uganda, we advocate for protection of girls’ rights, investment in preventing teenage pregnancy and child marriages and, through the Brian Mutebi Dream Scholarship Fund, 27 teenage mothers, orphaned and survivors of gender based violence have been supported in schools. Uganda’s DHS shows only 1 in 10 teenage mothers returns to school after giving birth; we are working to reduce this gap.
There are efforts to advance comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), especially in schools. However, health rights activists are deadlocked with government on the CSE content. The principle sources of disagreement are abstinence and use of contraceptives by young adolescents. Still, it is a promising sign that the Ugandan government signed up for and launched the African Union continental campaign committing to implement legislation and policies that effectively prohibit, prevent, punish and redresses child marriage including cross-border movements of girls for child marriage purposes. To empower girls, adolescents in Uganda should have access to age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health information, and rather than being stigmatized, teenage mothers provided with psychosocial support and formal education.
* Names have been changed to protect anonymity
Brian Mutebi is a 2016 Winner of the “120 Under 40: New Generation of Family Planning Leaders” global contest, a Ugandan journalist and girls’ rights campaigner and founder of The Brian Mutebi Dream Scholarship Fund, the first scholarship scheme in Africa for survivors the first scholarship scheme in Africa for survivors of gender based violence and teenage mothers.
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